Aviation Quarterly
First Quarter 1978, Volume Four, Number One

"The Ted Parsons Story"
One of aviation's earliest and most colorful figures, Edwin C. "Ted" Parsons was an eight-victory ace while flying with the legendary Lafayette Escadrille in France during World War I. Parsons served, between world wars, as an FBI agent, an actor, writer and technical director in several Hollywood war films, and wrote extensively for magazines and periodicals during the depression era, with much of his story material centered around the exploits of the Lafayette squadron. Parsons left Hollywood at the onslaught of World War II and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the United States Navy. When he died in 1968 at the age of 75, Time magazine called him "The last ace of the Lafayette Escadrille."

[pp 4-65]



[part 10, pp. 50-61]

The post-war period

Returning to the United States shortly after the armistice and reunited with his family in Springfield, Parsons, like thousands of others seeking to slip back into the mainstream of American life after fighting the war, began searching for something to do. The learned that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was enrolling qualified men for training as special agents and applied. He was accepted, trained by the Bureau and assigned to the Los Angeles Bureau of the FBI in 1920.

Investigative work had its allure to Parsons, but the FBI seemed all work and little money. So in 1923 Parsons resigned from the FBI to set up his own private detective agency in Los Angeles. He had business cards printed:


--A real Detective Service by competent, reliable operatives, under the personal supervision of Edwin C. Parsons, formerly Special Agent, United States Department of Justice.

---Specializing in criminal, industrial and civil investigations, automobile thefts and embezzlements.

--You may not need such service often, but when you do, call on us---WE PRODUCE RESULTS.

operating out of
416 I.W. Hellman Building, L.A.

But Parsons' bureau failed. His hometown newspaper, the Holyoke Daily Transcript, gave one blunt paragraph to its fate in a July 14, 1936 story:

Four years after his FBI work he founded his own detective business and within a year of careful management he succeeded in losing everything except the clothes he was wearing when the Sheriff arrived to take over the assets.

The Transcript reporter was doubtlessly paraphrasing Parsons' own words---he was a master of comic exaggeration when describing his own exploits---but whatever the cause, the private detective business did not work out and he was adrift in California, out of work.

Parsons had made valuable contacts while a resident of Los Angeles including one man he had known in France, William Augustus Wellman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, who had flown in SPA.87. Wellman was living in Los Angeles when Parson's bureau failed, and by that time was earning quite a reputation as an up-and-coming movie director. He helped Parsons get a job as technical consultant with Paramount, a studio then getting into two-reeler war films. When the work was good, the salary rose to $1000 a week; in leaner times, $75 a week, but it was a good living and an exciting one and before long Parsons had expanded his credits to screen writer, sometime actor and technical director. He worked twelve years in Hollywood during the Golden Era when everyone was producing World War I films.

In 1927, the year Wellman's "Wings" made its appearance, Parsons became associated with the Howard Hughes spectacular, "Hell's Angels," an air war epic three years in the making and one that cost four million dollars by the time it was released in 1930. Parsons was hired as "aeronautical advisor" on the project and aided, in the spring and summer of 1927, in the world-wide search for authentic World War I aircraft to be rebuilt, modified and tested for the film. These included a monster Gotha bomber, Fokker D-VIIs, SE-5s, Sopwith Camels, Snipes, Avros, and miscellaneous camera planes.

The air scenes alone for "Hell's Angels" took eighteen months to shoot over Caddo Field near Van Nuys, in the San Fernando Valley, Inglewood, and the San Francisco Bay area. The great air battle sequence of the film cost $250,000 to enact and involved six month's training and dry runs with the fifty aircraft involved.

By the time 3,000,000 feet of film was in the cans, 20,000 persons had been involved in the making of "Hell's Angels" and 227,000 miles of flight time had been logged.

The movie was an instant success with Jean Harlow making her screen debut. The cast included Ben Lyon and James Hall.

"Hell's Angels" gave Parsons nearly three years of steady employment and good salary. It also gave him a step up in the film. business in Hollywood. He had begun to write too, selling occasional articles to Photoplay, Liberty and Reader's Digest, and he hit the pulp markets with stunning regularity. Scarcely a week went by in the 1930's without Parsons' name appearing on the cover of one or more of the choicest of the war pulps---Wings, Aces, War Birds, Squadron, Contact, Battle Stories, Battle Birds and many others. The pulp editors were proud to have an authentic eight-victory ace of the Lafayette Escadrille and Storks in their pages and generally gave Parsons a place of honor in their magazines, trumpeting his name on the covers. He wrote formula fiction for them but specialized in the first person "I was there" essay---short biographies and accounts of the exploits of Lufbery, Thaw, Genet, Bill Wellman, Frank Baylies, Rene Fonck and others he had served with in the war. He also wrote on such subjects as superstitions of the war pilots, the use of alcohol by combat fliers (John Barleycorn and Mars was the memorable title of that piece), and the peculiarities of the various machines he flew for the French: Bleriots, Caudrons, Nieuports and Spads.

He was a hustler. In addition to his movie work and writing, he found time to launch a radio program in 1933 over KFWG in Los Angeles, a station owned by Warner Brothers. It was called "Heroes of the Lafayette Escadrille" and was narrated live by Parsons at 8 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays. The program was highly successful and his scripts all show a well-written, fast paced and exciting fifteen-minute program, complete with sound effects and parts written in for his occasional guests.

Fig. 1. A publicity still for Parsons' popular radio show, "HEROES OF THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE," which began production in Los Angeles in 1933.

Parsons also took an active role as "Personnel Officer" in an organization launched in the mid-1930's by actor Gary Cooper called "The Hollywood Hussars."

Commander of the Hussars was a fellow screen writer and pulps author, Arthur Guy Empey (whose Over the Top was an enormously popular account of Empey's service in the trenches with the British---a book Ernest Hemingway characterized as "a mug's-eye-view of the war"). Purpose of the organization, which had as its headquarters the Hollywood Athletic Club, was to be a "military-social unit" to take part in local civic affairs and to be "devoted to the advancement of American ideals."

Meanwhile, the war movie business was booming and Parsons reached a certain pinnacle of success in a film released in December, 1934, titled "Hell in the Heavens," in which he not only collaborated on the script but played a minor role as a German officer. One of the hundreds of 1930s war films ground out by the Hollywood movie machine to satisfy a voracious public appetite for such fare, "Hell in the Heavens" has not survived as a movie classic---but in its day, the film wasn't bad. Directed by John Blystone, based on a play called "The Ace" by Herman Rossman and scripted by Parsons and Byron Morgan, it was seventy-nine minutes of action and melodrama. The cast included Warner Baxter in the starring role of "Lt. Steve Warner," Conchita Montenegro as "Aimee," and a host of character actors, some of the recognizable in years to come---Andy Devine, J. Carroll Nash, and Ralph Morgan.

A movie trade paper described "Hell in the Heavens" as "exceptionally well-written and put together and Warner Baxter's performance is vivid and vigorous." Variety said that the film "is so well-directed, written and played that it will have respectable standing within its program limitations. A tense, moving drama has been built upon the open and secret fears of all the principle characters---fears which drive the men of an allied escadrille and their enemies, to strange deeds of valor."

Another review said, in contrast, "The story is particularly weak, dealing more on situations and action background than in plot. " Yet another review gave away the plot:

Baxter, an American, is commandant of a French escadrille which is bothered frequently and particularly by the Baron, a German ace whose messages of challenge get on everybody's nerves to such an extent that Baxter considers him his own personal enemy. Quartered in an old French pension, the group of officers have had a pretty nice time of it---what with Conchita, Montenegro in their midst---had not the Baron disturbed them so. Baxter eventually leaves Miss Montenegro, just as they are dashing off to be married, when he receives a particularly Irritating challenge.

However, Baxter brings the German down, when his guns jam, by diving into him.

Whatever else may be said of it, "Hell in the Heavens" had one moment of authenticity---the jamming guns. Parsons had tried to clear many a Lewis and Vickers breech while in action, and added this touch to the shooting script.

Following "Hell in the Heavens," Parsons worked as technical director on "The World Moves On," a picture directed by Jack Ford at Fox Studios, and on "Danger Flight," a Monogram Film starring John Trent, Marjorie Reynolds, Milburn Stone ("Doc" on the television series "Gunsmoke" in years to come) and Jason Robards, Sr. "Danger Flight" was based on the highly successful comic strip of the day, "Tailspin Tommy" by Hal Forrest.

In 1936, Parsons was named technical director of an ambitious 20th Century-Fox film, "Road to Glory, " starring Warner Baxter and Frederic March. Later that year he worked with Carl Laemmle, Jr., on the script of "Son of a Gun," described in a Universal Studios press release as a "soldier of fortune adventure." There followed such other epics, with Parsons as writer or technical consultant, as "Legion of the Condemned" and "Man in the Sky."

During this period of time Parsons sold two serials to Liberty magazine: "Danger Flight," which was subsequently published in book form in 1937 by Doubleday-Doran as The Great Adventure, and "Oceans Are Just Big Ditches, " a story about Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, the famous Australian aviator. He had become fairly well-established as a writer by the late 1930s.